Category Archives: non-fiction

‘The Leopard’ Lampedusa’s light-hearted, deeply learned, always entertaining letters

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Famous for his 20th century classic, The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) – and Visconti’s wonderfully evocative film of the name, The Leopard [1963] [DVD], with Burt Lancaster – this slim collection of Lampedusa‘s letters, mostly to his two cousins, is a delicious, quirky and charming epistolary treat. Quirky because his deep learning typically combined with his often scatological, irreverent humour (most notably, there are some very funny letters written in the style of a proprietor of numerous models of high-quality testicles to gentlemen in such need), and the fact that he referred to himself in his letters in the third person, as The Monster (because of his voluminous appetite for reading; the title was given to him by his cousin and poet, Lucio Piccolo, one of the recipients of the letters).

Lampedusa was a deeply cultured man, loving – and being immersed in – literature ancient, medieval and modern, especially Italian, English and French. (He wrote a 1,000-page study of English Literature, published in 1990-1991 by the Italian firm Mondadori; he also wrote an incomplete, densely handwritten 500 pages for an intended follow-up study of French literature.) He also loved going to the cinema – he’s insightful, for example, about the now-classic King Vidor’s The Crowd (1938) – sadly not available nowadays to us on DVD – loved architecture, and enjoyed bespoke, quality-made clothes.

If this collection was not already a sufficient joy for Lampedusa’s sense of humour and impressive sweep of literary references, and his easy display of learning and culture with an always light touch, he’s also terrific at capturing the essence of a place he visits (he was a great and regular traveller, typically following a `circuit’ that included London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other vistas) and with great relish he conveys his tremendous Epicurean sensibilities. As one terrific example, let me quote the following, on his love for English food:

But the Monster, as he has already given you to understand, contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig – of which he is proud. And as a pig he appreciates and rejoices in fleshly pleasures. At times the Spartan simplicity of the pure English cuisine terrifies him. But more often he is delighted – whether he is drinking, as he is today, thick buttery milk which leaves a trace of cream in the cup, whether he is biting bloody steaks which pass on to him the vigour of noble and select young bulls, whether he is tasting large thick slices of rosy ham, lying on beds of soft real bread and coming from the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire, whether again at the end of the meal, sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured. Because here cheese is not served in prosaic slices, but whole cheese are brought to the table, and the dilettante (I was about to say the lover) digs into the tasty recesses, rummages in them with a horn spoon and tries them out. And the waiters are often so incautious as to leave the multicoloured treasures in front of the Monster – and their eyes pop out when, instead of three cheeses of about ten kilos each, they find only three fragrant but empty shells.

Isn’t that just wonderful? I get hungry every time I read it and even now am fantasising about chomping on a giant wheel of cheese. And his powers of description extend also to human portraits; in particular one very beautiful, utterly captivating description of a brilliant curator of The Wallace Collection.

But he’s not an absolute star; meaning he’s not – as with all of us – without some deep faults; far from it. An occasional snobbery does come in matters of certain social classes and individuals, and he can be quite (though rarely horribly) cruel in some of his characterisations; these are forgivable, but what is far from palatable is his unquestioning support of Il Duce and fascism, and his barely concealed abhorrence of Jews (at one point he cites the Russian progroms as an example of `Russian wisdom’). (And if there are readers who say, it’s unfair to criticise someone of the 20s and 30s being anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism was common at the time, I think this is no excuse, for we are all responsible for our individual actions and beliefs, and Lampedusa was far from ignorant in his understanding of many other aspects of life and society in general.)

Still, a fascinating insight into a way of life and living that Lampedusa already knew was on the cards (Sicilian aristocracy, and the aristocratic way of life in general).

As to the quality of the publication itself, there’s no complaint, save one absolutely almighty one: It is the infuriatingly stupid way in which each note to a particular reference in the letters has – instead of being numbered – been itemised with an asterisk. As you turn the pages, and the notes inevitably accumulate, you find yourself being advised to – as an example – `See first note to p.43′ to return you to the original note in which that particular reference occurred. But then you turn to p.43 and find that it is not the relevant note but instead is the first occurrence of that reference, so then you have to go and turn the pages of that individual letter’s notes, on p.53, for an explanation of that note! Bloody, hugely frustrating. I can understand completely why the editor wanted to be economical and avoid repeating the same notes – after all, extra pages bump up the cost of publishing a book, and this collection may perhaps only interest the most devoted of Lampedusa fans (I hope not, they’re well worth the read), but then why weren’t all the notes itemised with numbers, so that you could be told to, in the same example, `See p.53, note 1′ – simple, surely?!

Highly recommended.

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Charles Dickens: The making of a literary giant – Hibbert’s masterful biography

book cover of Charles Dickens biography by Christopher Hibbert

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Christopher Hibbert rightly has a significant place in the pantheon of great 20th century biographers and he deservedly remains one of the most popular and widely read. His Charles Dickens: The Making of a Literary Giant is just one of the many proofs of his excellence as a biographer.

It is not just because he was a brilliant researcher, always being careful and absolutely thorough in his consideration of all relevant primary source material, nor – more impressively – his incredible, frankly astonishingly wide range of subjects, with over 60 books published in his lifetime, many of which have remained in print since first publication: from Dickens to Samuel Johnson, on cities (Florence, Rome, and an encyclopedia of London), King George III, to Napoleon, Disraeli, the French Revolution, Mussolini, Africa, Elizabeth I and even one on The Roots of Evil: A social History of Crime and Punishment, besides many others.

It is  because, combined with these two talents, he was first an exceptional, thoroughly engaging and always compelling storyteller.  As he said once in an interview with the UK’s The Sunday Times in 1990:

The main aim is to entertain and tell a good accurate story without attempting to make historical discoveries or change historical opinion in any way. You’ve got to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next, even if you’re writing about something the outcome of which is well known.

This biography of Dickens is in fact a reprint that was first published in 1967 and this merits the only caveat emptor besides what is otherwise a wholehearted and passionate recommendation of this wonderful book; the warning being that, inevitably, through absolute no fault of Hibbert, at the time of his reading of primary sources and publication, there were many important items unavailable to him because they had not yet become accessible, edited or otherwise published; the most significant being that of Dickens many thousands of letters. Hibbert’s only access at the time of his writing was to the Nonesuch edition, published back in 1938 which, while certainly covering a wide range across Dickens’ entire life, was itself thought of as ‘patchy and sometimes even misleading [though] is still the best complete edition of Dickens’s correspondence for the years not covered by the Pilgrim edition’ (page 1,084, in the hardback edition of Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd). Unfortunately, only the first volume of the authoritative Pilgrim edition of letters, published in 1965, was available to Hibbert, and which itself could only manage to cover the period of Dickens from age eight to 27 – i.e., a further 31 years’ worth of his letters are not fully accounted for, and weren’t, until – with the final volume (12 in its series) of this astonishingly comprehensive and brilliantly edited collection – was published in 2002.

Having said that, the research up to 1967 is without doubt impeccable, and Hibbert’s style of writing – as always – is elegant, entertaining, fluid and charming. His deep wisdom and capacity to make important connections and provide innumerable and always valuable insights into Dickens, whether of the author’s psychology, personality – it seems clear from all the evidence that Dickens was very much a manic-depressive – the relevance of his personal history to his obsessively reoccurring themes and key archetypal characters in his fiction (John Carey’s The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is also particularly brilliant on these issues), his feats of herculean productivity, phenomenal energy and inevitable restlessness, or his behaviour towards and relationship with his family, friends, his publishers and his much devoted audience (both readership-wise and when he gave his hugely popular readings in the UK and the US) – well, Hibbert remains consistently brilliant. His knowledge of Dickens’ novels is profound, and the way he quotes from them is always apposite and enlightening about Dickens himself, as well as – of course – offering a judicious, scrupulous understanding of the novels themselves.

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Twelve 20th-Century Women Writers – a great book by Lorna Sage

Book cover Moments of Truth by Lorna Sage

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A wonderful collection. Sage, sadly no longer with us, was a phenomenal and thoroughly well-read essayist, journalist and critic of literature, not just about writers of the 20th century period, but from the 18th onwards. She not only understood what the writers and their work were about, but also knew about the culture and society within which they lived, engaged and often struggled.

This collection of some of her literary criticism/essays/journalism (there’s another fab, even larger selection titled Good As Her Word, also published by Fourth Estate) focuses on a number of great women writers of the 20th century. They’re not linked in any way, other than the writers are all female and brilliant each in their own way, and the fact all these articles reflect Sage’s tremendous insight, appreciation and sensitivity for the work of these writers, leaving you always with a deeper understanding of their psychological, intellectual and literary viewpoints as well as a passionate interest in the novels she discusses.

From an obituary of Iris Murdoch (both as a novelist and philosopher, and the relationship between these two), to intelligent essays on perhaps lesser known novelists Christine Brooke-Rose and Djuna Barnes (and certainly this applies to Violet Trefusis), to the well-known Edith Wharton, Angela Carter – I think she’s the best critic on Carter’s work and has written a book on her and edited a collection of essays on her – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, and Simone de Beauvoir, you will finish this collection with a passion to read the novels Sage discusses. What better recommendation is there for a literary critic’s work?

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The best review/criticism of Hakim and her anti-feminist Honey Money/Erotic Capital nonsense

This is a delightfully shameless plug nay, rave! — for a fantastic critique of Hakim’s approach to feminism, her book, Honey Money, combined with an analysis of a talk the academic gave the other day at The Watershed venue in Bristol. The article is by @MadamJMo and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. @MadamJMo is a Bristol-based feminist, magazine editor and activist and clearly she’s impressive on all those bases.

Not only is her article thorough in its research, but also her clinical, scrupulous attention to detail of the event, the way Hakim engaged her audience (or, rather, didn’t); the author’s comments about her book and the questions made and answers given, make it well worth the read.  @MadamJMo understands, unlike Hakim, that to deconstruct an opponent’s argument properly, you have to pay both close attention and have great analytical appreciation of the event.  The insight into subtext and counterpoint of views are impressive and we are shown what hides behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain: a deeply ingrained antifeminist, contradictory with a frankly bizarre, incomprehensible and spurious perspective.  Sadly, this review confirms what I suspected: that Hakim herself seems to delight in disparagement of the female, while excusing the male (for his high sex drive, poor thing). Yes, she subjects the object woman for that, it seems, is what ‘woman’ is to Hakim a bauble, a man’s plaything to enjoy at his behest; the proverbial spare rib from Adam’s cageto her patriarchal-forgiving-excusing gaze.  Insufferable. Do, please, take five minutes out this weekend to read it and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Ah, what the heck: I mean, it’s bloody marvellous! 

Be prepared to be impressed, because here’s the link:  http://bit.ly/pLdBZD

PS – BTW – Hakim’s advocacy of a certain type of behaviour by the woman towards the man essentially strike me as boiling down to doing what the wonderfully delightful Amy Sedaris did on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night Talk Show on 30th August 2011. (The article is worth reading, too, but I bring readers’ attention to the nbc.com embedded video and around 2 minutes in you soon begin to get the picture of what erotic capital is all about.)  I suspect not even Hakim’s prepared to go that far with her male professorial colleagues — is she? No, presumably, so why on earth should other women flirt themselves like doped up barbie dolls to satisfy certain men’s sexist gaze? http://lat.ms/amyinaction.  It’s a fantastic video. Have a gander and a lovely weekend.


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Filed under anti-feminism, catherine hakim, erotic capital, Honey Money, non-fiction, pay disparity, right-wing women, Sexism

On ‘Ho*ney Money: The Power of Er*otic Capital’ by Catherine Hakim, plus Cristina Odone’s celebratory book review of it. Or: Golly Jee, Mr – Fancy a Flirtatious Smile & a Metaphorical BJ with That?

Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery & find out you can succeed in the workplace & in life just by using your feminine charms, make-up, fluttering eyelids, smiles & —why gosh! — yes, even by wiggling your bottom. Oops! I mean by being flirtatious.

Ah, the joys of women pandering to men’s needs; now there’s no “sex discrimination”, according to writer and journalist Cristina Odone. (Or is she paraphrasing Catherine Hakim, academic sociologist at the prestigious, world-renowned London School of Economics and who is, it seems, known for “criticising feminist assumptions about employment” it says in her Wikipedia profile: No doubt Hakim’s proud of that fact, as any right-wing thinking woman should be.  One also wonders whether Hakim wrote the copy for it, or just had one of her devoted disciplines write it, with her permission?)

My review here is a type of Russian nesting doll-in-a-doll set, in that I’m critiquing both Odone’s own women-denigrating review of the book in The Daily Telegraph; a book which in itself comes across as equally women-denigrating, sexist-supporting, anti-women, by Hakim in Honey Money.

A few years ago I saw Cristina Odone a couple of times on the serious talk-panel programme, Question Time on the BBC, and I thought then: well, clearly she’s a hardcore conservative; unsurprisingly —not a good thing, in my view.  In fact, she reminds me a lot of David Starkey, the historian whose expertise is the Tudor period, is a bestselling author and popular presenter of his own TV series based on his own bestsellers and — unfortunately — is often invited to spout right-wing nonsense on TV about issues in modern society.

Odone comes across as an intelligent person, but she seems to have zero emotional IQ and certainly no empathy for those she judges: take the recent furore she just caused over her criticism of NHS nurses on Question Time on 14th April 2011, and in her follow-up blog comments the next day in The Daily Telegraph.  As if NHS nurses are in charge and to blame for the way the NHS operates.  I’d love to see Odone, no doubt on a great salary and living happily in a beautiful home, try being a nurse just for a day.  I suspect she may be prepared to revamp her comments radically in favour of the difficulties and challenges and stresses all of them face.  But then, maybe NHS nurses, along with any other woman who happens to be hardworking in a poorly paid job, need only take heed of the counsel dished out to women in Honey Money by Hakim: just use your ‘erotic capital’ and voilà, you may find a rich man, but certainly life will become easier because men will treat you better.  The whole Waldorf Salad-enchilada-Nine-Yards fandango. So that’s how to be successful modern woman of the Noughties. Wow! Who’d have it could be so utterly straightforward as that?  All you need to do is smile, maybe wear high heels, dress in body-shape-enhancing clothes, flutter your eyelids and definitely use a certain appealing you-know-nudge-nudge tone of voice and — oh!  — please don’t worry if you or others think you’re not pretty; no, says Hakim, erotic capital is really all about your attitude.

Eva Longoria, here as a Stepford Wife in © Desperate Housewives; a ma*le fant*asy sexist man's dream version of the perf*ect woman. Or (no ref to Longoria — rather this idealised woman'!): "Can I get you suds with that, big boy? Or maybe a sprinkling of Er*otic Capital from my Hakim Ho*ney Money Pot?"

Radical thinking?  Does this sort of tripe even merit publication (and by the respectable Allen Lane publishers in the UK, no less!).  Hell no: this book in most ways reflects a pre-90s-typically 1950s/60s/70s attitude towards and about women all over again. It perfectly echoes Ira Levin’s 1972 bestselling satirical fiction, The Stepford Wives, and the films it inspired. (The first, in 1975, was great — script by William Goldman, directed by Bryan Forbes, and performances by Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss; the second simply over the top silly, directed by Frank Oz (never very subtle anyway; he should have stuck with movies for kids), and with Nicole Kidman — ghastly in it — and Bette Midler, who is entertaining in it and milks the role for all the camp it’s worth and she could muster, both of which are a lot, bless her.)

In Levin’s novel, the men’s sexist attitudes have led to their desire for and then creation of ‘the perfect woman’ in an equally perfect, secluded gated community. The robotic-type women are always smiling, the perfect hostess, submissive, forever wanting to please her man and doing so, at his bidding, and most of the time before it. I think this all sounds remarkably similar to what Hakim is advocating in her book and Odone endorses, though both may argue otherwise, namely: A woman should always please the men in their lives, whether co-worker, boss or husband, potential partner or just a guy serving you in a shop or wherever else. Give him a smile, be demure, flutter your eyelids. Paint your face. Massage his tense shoulders from being stressed at being a man in the modern age. Just glow with your erotic capital, m’dear, then all will be well in your world. I mean, jes*sus H frickin unbelievable that this sort of vomit-inducing nonsense is being spouted by a senior academic at one of the leading British universities and is further endorsed by Odone and her absurd statements.  Take one such example of Odone, where she says Hakim is:

at her best when she provides a refreshing antidote to the boiler-suited, shaved-head thinking that keeps masculinists from reflecting ordinary women’s ambitions

Who on earth can she possibly be thinking of who is in real life at all like this “masculinist”, as she defines it; who, to take her metaphor seriously, even metaphorically dresses/acts/speaks like this — and with a shaved head, too! My goodness, but they must be female monsters, foaming at the mouth, head-butting charming men (for there is no other kind), with their extraordinary women’s ambitions!  (And even if some women did really dress like that, and really have a shaved head, that Odone wasn’t writing metaphorically well — who frickin cares — aren’t they still women, with rights and voices to be heard?!)

I suppose this is Odone’s pathetic attempt at being witty – but at the expense of whom?  Women who speak up and challenge the sexist status quo, that’s who. God forbid that a woman, to cite Rebecca West, differentiates herself from a doormat; suddenly you’ll be thought of as being shaven-headed and boiler-suited in your attitudes (of course, West really said ‘feminist’, not shaven-headed etc!).  Ah, but her metaphor also is a criticism of any woman who doesn’t use her femininity to her advantage, be at work, home or elsewhere; if you aren’t, the metaphor seems to imply that you must be a pastiche for a guy; a fake female; even a fake sort of guy.  Perhaps not so oddly, I’m suddenly reminded of Lady Gaga’s exhaustively relentless efforts at being radical/leading, when in fact she copies her idols and tiresomely takes on an easy target, i.e., the traditional, Catholic religion (Madonna), or attempts sad nonsense in the form of Joe Calderone, her alter-ego (that alter-ego link will take you to a fantastic critique by “Robin”, an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department at UNC Charlotte, USA; there’s also an entertaining critique/review of Calderone’s performance in an LA Times blog. BTW, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying I think Gaga is without talent; far from it; some of her early songs were great in The Fame Monster and showed she merited her fame and success; especially via Poker Face and Bad Romance, her videos of those songs and her amazing costumes).

The assumptions made by Odone are sexist in themselves, derogatory, and a stereotypical portrayal of women and their rights. As an academic, Hakim really has no excuses; I’m sure of that. In the book review, Odone talks about the gratitude felt towards feminists for “getting rid of sex discrimination“, but clearly she’s clueless that one such fundamental part of sex discrimination that remains rife and is a global issue, is gender pay disparity. On this alone, there is a mass of research and reports readily available for anyone who has access to the web.

On the subject of pay disparity alone, since it is important and that discrimination continues to be faced by the majority of women in the workplace across the globe, despite the backing of their rights in most if not all Western countries through legislation for equal pay, such as with the UK’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, here are a few research reports to illustrate how rife such discrimination is.  First, a Google search alone brings up a wealth (sorry for the bad pun) of pay disparity reports/material, here.  There’s also the World Economic Forum’s Global Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 and, as one example into a specific, global major industry, financial services, there’s a 2009 report published by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission,  called Sex Discrimination and Gender Pay Gap Report (that link is just for the press summary of the report; but you can also find the full report on the site, too; and there’s also a fascinating 2011 report from the same organisation, this one on women being passed over for top jobs – just click here).

As anyone who is even half-awake about the realities of the world knows, sex discrimination is far from over and Hakim’s Ho*ney Money and Odone — far from celebrating women and helping to challenge sex discrimination, objectification of women and trivialisation of them by the appalling notion of “ero*tic capital” — reinforce such objectification, discrimination etc. (And you can just see the consequences of Ho*ney Money-type thinking in the City/Wall Street/the financial services industry, or frankly any other male-dominated workplace. Such trivialisation will go down a treat with the guys in power/control, over women who work with or for them, as the women will be at the mercy of their being charged with using such capital, when in fact the women are being sexually harassed by the men. You can just imagine a future law court scene in which the male defendent uses the defence of ‘ero*tic capital like this:

“I’m not guilty, m’Lud – she was using erotic capital on me, so I couldn’t help but rub my gen*itals against her bu*m in the office. She made me do it – she wanted it, when she smiled at me in that way, massaged my shoulders and gave me a metaphorical BJ.”)

Most people, I reckon, unfortunately, have enough to contend with: either being in crap jobs, if you’re fortunate enough to have a job in the first place and, with women, they have the double-edged sword facing them unlike the majority of men, even now in the Noughties, given most still do all or most of the shopping/cleaning/cooking as well as be a co-wage-earner. Hakim and Odone point to such hardships and question whether or not it was worth it for women to win the fight for the right to work as equals to men, rather than be forced into only one option, that of being a stay-at-home-mum (obviously for those women who choose this, all well and good, but for those who want other choices as well, to be deprived of other options is far from good).  Surely one of the key points of feminism was and is to make sure women have equal access to all industries and all jobs available, just as it is to make sure such access exists for education and equal pay, based on talent, qualifications, experience, etc.  Hakim, however, seems to be saying that adopting a Ho*ney Money attitude towards the men in your life – and Odone clearly endorses this view in her book review — will likely give you a far better chance at a better quality of life than the misery of modern work. Why golly gee — you could may be lifted off your feet by a rich, dashing, non-gay Rock Hudson, and escape from the drudgery of common working life.  But I think we can count such women on one hand, or perhaps one digit, unless you watch the rich women in Orange County and/or already happen to be rich.

As for Odone and Hakim – well, they need not worry – one’s a successful journalist and the other an established academic who seems to sneer at women’s rights at least as far as employment is concerned.  All while they have their own delicious cake and also get to eat. “Do as I say, not as I do”, in other words.

Ultimately, Ho*ney Money’s credo, its advocacy of erotic capital, will be seen for what it is: a sexist revisionism of genuine women’s rights and self-empowerment— the Empress’s New Clothes, to paraphrase the cliché.  It is intellectually dishonest, morally bankrupt thinking that wholeheartedly pejorative towards women; it is, therefore, explicitly anti-feminist,anti-women’s rights in the workplace (to be treated as an equal to men, not to be slathered over because of flirting with them), and echoes back to a denigrating time, culture and thinking that is, at most, pre-1980s, and frankly smacks, as indicated earlier, of the 1950s and before.  I’m reminded of an age-old sexist chant by men, typically drunk when they sing it, that would agree wholeheartedly with the essence of Hakim’s and Odone’s arguments. Namely, it seems to me,whether you use your body, tone of voice, eye contact or some such other, you are effectively doing what supposedly funny but only pathetic, sexist drunken men want you to do, when all they chant together at women: “Get your t*its out for the lads.” Awful, right?  (Unless you’re a drunken man with a snout, but then you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?!)

So Hakim and Odone not only seem to disapprove of modern feminism, but worse, think there’s no need for feminism or feminists anymore; after all there’s no more “sex discrimination” ! Well, I for one don’t approve of their characterisation of women as sexual Stepford Wives of this decade or any other.  Talk about backwards, sexist thinking.  Even shallow pop culture trivialisations of feminism for young women’s consumption — by characterising women’s rights as “Riot Grrrl” and, before that, “Girl Power”, are genuinely more meaningful, in-depth and useful to women, young and old,  than the nonsense of the reviewer and this sociologist; both of whom, via their views, bring shame to the history of women’s struggle, and the women who have fought in every sense for their rights.  There is nothing to celebrate in two bright women celebrating as a way to get ahead an encouragement for women to focus on their appeal to men via their own looks/consideration of them/flirting with them/body language/tone of voice/femininity. In short, god, let’s say that awful phrase one more time: ero*tic capital.  It’s as if I’ve just swallowed a cup of cold sick thinking and writing about this.  Let’s hope you don’t feel the same way from reading about it.

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Filed under abuse of women, anti-feminism, catherine hakim, feminism, misogyny, non-fiction, right-wing women, Sexism, Stepford Wives, women's rights

Harold Nicolson’s The Age of Reason – The best book on 18th century society?

The Age of Reason by Harold Nicolson - click the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

Well, The Age of Reason, 1700-1789, is certainly the best single volume book publication I have read to date that gives a rich overview of 18th century society — principally European, though also covering in less depth the American and British — including its cultural, intellectual and political life.  Harold Nicolson’s intelligence, graceful writing style, wit, and — importantly — deep reading and study of the 18th century makes this survey a joy to read, from beginning to end.  (In fact, he wrote several books on important people in the 18th century, which are listed on his Wikipedia page.)

Nicolson not only captures but also puts into context the overlapping intellectual, philosophical, political, religious and cultural viewpoints, the collective atmosphere of such influences, the events they related to and the most significant figures of the 18th century that were involved.  As a one-volume accomplishment, it is outstanding for its analysis, portrayal and critique of the glorious, confabulated world of that significant period in Western civilisation’s historical development.  The only other one-volume study worthy of comparison, notably because it is also so wide-ranging and comprehensive in its survey — but through a selection of excerpts from writers of the period, and covering all key aspects of society, from gender and race, reason and nature, crime and punishment, to manners and morals, etc. — is The Portable Enlightenment Reader, one of the excellent books in the series of anthologies published by the Viking Portable Library.

There really is no better achievement in terms of narrative, or one more beautifully written, than Nicolson’s brief, clever elucidations of the most important, larger-than-life and frankly highly entertaining figures of the time (sometimes with the delicious hindsight that we can afford), including: Voltaire, Frederick the Great, The ‘Salons’, Horace Walpole, Catherine the Great, Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, The Encylopedie (Diderot, et al), Samuel Johnson, Tom Paine, Rousseau and several others, besides.

If, like me, you are fascinated by 18th century society — I admit I’m coming at this from reading from a European cultural viewpoint — there are some great books to enjoy. Just see below.  A couple of notes, FYI:

  • If you click on one of the book covers below that has an asterisk before the title, you will be taken to BookDepository.com to read about it and/or to buy it with free worldwide delivery.  However, if the book isn’t available, the cover link will only take you to information about the author and I’d recommend instead that you look for a cheap secondhand copy via Bookfinder.com — probably the most comprehensive book search website in the world and where you are likely to find several editions at low-cost; otherwise, try Amazon’s marketplace (simply search for the title, and usually several low-cost options will be available), or abebooks (.co.uk or .com).
  • The books by Isaiah Berlin (The Age of Enlightenment) and Leslie Stephen (History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century [in two volumes]), while clearly and intelligently written like all the others I recommend, are more demanding on the mind, requiring active engagement rather than reading for pleasure alone.

    * History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century - Volume One of Two Volumes by Leslie Stephen

    * History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century - Volume Two of Two Volumes by Leslie Stephen

    * The Enlightenment - Volume Two of Two Volumes by Peter Gay

    * The Enlightenment - Volume One of Two Volumes by Peter Gay

    The Age of Enlightenment by Isaiah Berlin

    * The Portable Enlightenment Reader, Edited by Isaac Kramnick

    The Eighteenth Century Background by Basil Willey

    * The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

England in the Eighteenth Century by J. H. Plumb

* English Society in the 18th Century by Roy Porter

Dr Johnson's London by Liza Picard

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Filed under 18th century, Age of Enlightenment, history, non-fiction

Shooter, with Mark Wahlberg, or: Bloody hell – he can act (sometimes)

Yes, it is big (you should see my other one). Ohhh - the gun, right, right....

Not only is this a terrific action/thriller film, it’s one of the best – and most believable – conspiracy movies made in the 21st century. Surprised that Wahlberg could be in such a quality movie?  Well, not if you’ve seen him in some of his other polished performances, among them, The Perfect Storm (2000), Three Kings  (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997).

But here Wahlberg is centre stage and must carry this conspiracy movie about an apparent assassination attempt on the life of the American president). He does so with what appears to be effortless panache and focus.  It’s a powerful, compelling performance in which the character he plays, Bob Lee Swagger, is at the heart of a story about the abuse of American foreign policy/power.

Noam Chomsky: Not only is my mind the size of a frickin planet (which I must say is rather nice), but I'm charming and modest, too. Photo © John Soames

Based upon Stephen Hunter‘s Bob Lee Swagger series of thrillers, beginning with Point of Impact, the author himself acknowledges in one of the DVD’s fascinating bonus featurettes that his original inspiration for his novel was the Marine  Carlos Hathcock, a true-life, phenomenally accurate sniper.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this thriller, but my impression is that the intellectual, political viewpoint that underpins this comes from the brilliant Noam Chomsky, in his well-researched, evidence-based critiques and examples of American imperialism, such as in Hegemony or Survival : America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy; these viewpoints add substance to what otherwise may have been a lacklustre conspiracy thriller. Wahlberg’s performance is a marvel (there, I said it on record), and thankfully worlds away from his ridiculous role and his even more terrible muppet-like acting in the bottom-wiped-floating-tu*rd remake, Planet of The Apes(2001).This film is a genuine, legitimate and compelling interpretation of the use of illegitimate, unjustified force for the sake of ‘democracy’. It has the narrative drive you would expect of a thriller, combined with touching, sensitive moments, as exemplified by the role and relationships with, first, Kate Mara, the gorgeous actress’s endearing Wahlberg’s character’s saviour and subsequently love interest  is terrific; her acting conveying the hurt and pain of having lost her husband, Wahlberg’s sniper buddy in the film, while still behaving according to a set of beliefs that are honorably focused on an essential understanding of ethics. Her face displays an intelligence, sensitivity and complex anguish that arguably merited an Oscar in Best Supporting Actress role.  And there’s Michael Peña‘s compelling role as a junior FBI agent, who has the intelligence and wherewithal to distinguish facts from fiction (though Pena’s acting is somewhat cardboard-like, I’m afraid, his character is still interesting). It is dramatic, intelligent, well-written, -plotted, -thought through and thoughtful in its range of issues covered.  Amazing, eh? I confess I’ve watched it a few times (I know, I know – life’s too short and there are thousands of other things to read/see/do!) and — every time — I appreciate once again the quality of the sharp, fast dialogue, the acting, the plotting and the very satisfying conclusion. (It is, admittedly, very much a  Hollywood movie in the sense of Wahlberg’s glorified revenge.)  Shooter, then, is a bona fide US conspiracy action-thriller and is absolutely crammed with action, ideas and thrills.  Not only this, but the Special Features of the film give you a deeper insight into its background and inspiration for it.

I may be a Quaker hillbilly, but I'm gonna getcha. Golla, golla, golla!

I also found the stories about the real-life Gunnery Sargeant Carlos Hathcock to be truly fascinating in their own right and merit the price of the DVD alone, because Hathcock really did have the amazing skills Wahlberg demonstrates as the character Bob Lee Swagger, and he was a genuine, top-secret sniper for the US government — with, it seems, abilities in that role that were unprecedented. (Interestingly, on this last point, I was reminded of the 1941 movie, Sergeant York , as the named character — a Quaker pacifist who fights in World War 1, played wonderfully by Gary Cooper, and who is not only a soldier but also a truly brilliant marksman/sniper/shooter.)

If you fancy learning more about Hathcock, his story is told over two biographies, both of which are available now.  The first is Marine Sniper and the sequel is Silent Warrior. Click on the relevant image to find out more about each and/or to buy them.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery

This is an intelligent film that has all the elements you want in a thriller/conspiracy movie; yep, it’s the real deal: a movie that makes you think, feel and engage about geo-politics, American foreign policy, and the ramifications of all the above — while thoroughly enjoying yourself and being entertained at the same time as Wahlberg defies the odds, kicks a*ss and, of course, wins the day (and the beautiful, clever love interest — but of course!).

FYI, for those of you who wish to buy a copy of Shooter, with free worldwide delivery, then for the Region 1 DVD, click here; for the Region 2 DVD, click here.

Click on the image to find out more about the book and/or to order it with free delivery

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Filed under action, Bob Lee Swagger, Charles Henderson, drama, Failed States, fiction, Hegemony or Survival, Kate Mara, Marine Sniper, Mark Wahlberg, movies, Noam Chomsky, non-fiction, Point of Impact, Silent Warrior, Stephen Hunter, The Shooter, thriller